Introduction to the New Edition

A History of Chinese Literature - Herbert Allen Giles 1973

Introduction to the New Edition

Every field of scholarly knowledge has an inspired pioneer classic that can never be rendered obsolete. A History of Chinese Literature, by Professor Herbert Allen Giles, is such a book. First published in 1901, it remains to this time the only formal history of Chinese literature in the English language. Rich in critical wisdom and facts, it is composed as a systematic compendium of eight books, one for each major period of Chinese literature.

The hopelessness of doing justice to a survey of their voluminous literature, and of accomplishing such a task to the satisfaction of their countrymen, either daunted the Chinese literati, or they never felt the need of a panoramic view. Whatever the fact, it is generally true that foreign scholars can venture into studies of cultures not their own with a confidence rarely found in native scholars, who tend to be too tied to their traditions to take the broad view. Giles successfully surveys the enormous range of Chinese literature in one small book, just as his contemporary W. G. Aston had done just two years previously in 1899 in writing A History of Japanese Literature.

Chinese scholarship, after its foundation 2,500 years ago, followed the path of Confucian stability, and until the advent of twentieth-century communism, based its social order on family ties. Puritanical morality was always strong, as it is in modern China, yet eroticism in Chinese literature and art has a long tradition, with eras of efflorescence like the Ming dynasty (as described and illustrated in Chinese Erotic Art by Beurdeley and others).

By tradition, candidates in state examinations were first tested for character, then given grueling written papers in which calligraphy and style were of primary importance. Degrees were awarded at three levels of attainment, much in the manner of the bachelor's, master's, and doctor's degrees in a modern university. In old China, however, literary achievement assured the scholar of a government post, the most talented individuals getting the highest offices. In Chinese eyes no dignity compared with that of the scholar and literary man, and the true administrator was always a man of learning. The effect of this tradition was to draw the talented to administration from all levels of society, regardless of their wealth or poverty. The Chinese people, being the most practical on earth, recognized that talent breaks through at all levels of society and that it should be given opportunity. Here was founded a democracy of intellect that yielded the most diverse and longest-lived of any world literature. (For a good selection of Chinese writing see William McNaughton's Chinese Literature: An Anthology from the Earliest Times to the Present Day.)

Not all writing had official sanction, indeed only that which was approved had importance, namely the formal essay (ch'uanchi), or philosophical discourse (P'ing hua). Narratives or fiction were not considered literature and were regarded by the literati as mere diversions at the level of folk tales. The composition of novels or short stories never aided a man to state office. Professor Herbert Giles was among the first few to discern literary worth in Chinese fiction, notably as it appeared in the Liao Chi of P'u Sung-ling (that gentleman of the Manchu dynasty who was in his time an academic failure because of his "neglect of the beaten track of academic study").

Herbert Giles was born at Oxford, England, in 1845, just eight years after Queen Victoria ascended the throne to reign until her death in 1901. Giles was a true-blood Victorian who expressed the expansive scholarship of an era that was confident, industrious, and interested in all corners of the British Empire. The foundations of modern Oriental scholarship were laid by great Victorians, including Sir Edwin Arnold, Sir Richard F. Burton, Powys Mathers, W. G. Aston, H. A. Giles, and a host of men who combined diplomatic work with scholarly pursuits.

In 1867, while still a young man, Giles went to Peking to join the British consular service. Thereafter he was appointed vice-consul at Pagoda Island (1880) and Shanghai (1883), then as consul at Tamsui (1885) and Ningpo (1891). He left China for England in 1892. The years of his stay in China were relatively quiet, for the Opium War and the T'ai P'ing Rebellion were over, while the Boxer Rebellion was yet to come. Communism was half a century in the future. Giles experienced on intimate terms the old China where traditional manners and codes of behavior were much as they had been for two thousand years. It is little realized today how technologically backward China remained throughout the nineteenth century. The late decades of the century in which Giles lived enjoyed an uneasy quiet in a country whose history is marked by turbulence rather than peace.

The unique quality of A History of Chinese Literature and its fine translations may be attributed to the close practical experience of Giles with China and the Chinese, plus his rare skill with the Chinese language. This experience, with his fluency in Chinese and his direct literary style in English, allowed him to achieve verbal accuracy while conveying the spirit of the original. When Giles died at the age of ninety, at Cambridge in 1935, he had for fifty years written on Chinese subjects. Books on how to teach or learn Chinese, catalogues of Chinese books, works on Chinese traditional religions, folklore, and the wisdom of Chunag Tze all appeared from his fertile pen. He is also well known for the standard Wade-Giles romanization system for Chinese.

Fate had indeed provided Giles with unusual opportunities to pursue Sinology. He experienced China in favorable times, and when he returned to England he received a chair in Chinese studies at Cambridge University—an appointment that allowed him to concentrate and to write. The situation paid no cash at the outset and thereafter only a modest honorarium, for in those days scholarship was unrelated to money. Those who could not afford it could not become professors of obscure subjects. There were positive advantages in being at Cambridge. Students were few—no one attached any importance to Chinese studies—so leisure was abundant for reading and writing in the academic peace of a charming university town. Giles's predecessor, Sir T. F. Wade, had left to the university a large collection of Chinese books that proved to be a great asset to Giles. Indeed, at the time no place in the world, including China, was more likely to satisfy an experienced scholar wishing to write on things Chinese. By the banks of the River Cam he could contemplate undisturbed the grandeurs of China and its arts. A tradition of Chinese studies has grown up at Cambridge that has produced Joseph Needham's Science and Civilization in China, those volumes of enormous authority, and other valuable works.

The fascination of China dawned on the West after Marco Polo, in the thirteenth century, described the wealth of the court of Kublai Khan. The Western world had known of China long before Marco Polo from the silks, spices, and porcelains that reached the Middle East via the tortuous camel routes over Asia's hinterland. China's cultural riches are of permanent benefit to mankind, yet they are of recent appearance in the West. It was not until the nineteenth century that substantial translations were made from Chinese, and Professor Giles was among the pioneers who opened the way to understanding this great literature. He was followed by a distinguished band of colleagues, including Arthur Waley, James Legge, T. L. Cranmer-Byng, Lawrence Binyon, Burton Watson, and others who worked also on broader fronts of Chinese art. Scholars, art historians, and archaeologists have now laid before the Western world a fascinating picture of artistic China as an enduring civilization of over 4,000 years, if we take into account its beginnings before the Shang dynasty. Archaeology reveals that there is much more to come.

The arts of China are many, yet it is its literature that is traditionally most esteemed. The literati of China, through most of its history, enjoyed the patronage of emperors and nobles who commissioned them to compile books on poetry, painting, geography, and other enterprises, often to help secure their names in history as patrons of culture. There are of course high points and low points in Chinese literary history, although there is general agreement that the Sung dynasty (960—1279) represents the great age of Chinese literature, which compares in its brilliance with Hellenic Greece, Elizabethan England, and the great eras of Indian literature. India contributed much to Chinese civilization in a direct way, particularly by sending the philosophy of Buddhism, which in turn was passed on to Japan. Buddhism reached China two thousand years ago, but it was the arrival of the Indian monk Bodhidharma in A.D. 520, that laid the foundation for the Ch'an or Zen school in China, which, via Japan, has had such an impact on Western thought in the twentieth century. China also contributed to the world many inventions that made civilization possible, notably paper, movable printing type, and gunpowder.

Until the years following World War II the average Westerner thought of the Chinese as a nation of coolies—yellow men and inscrutable—who were best suited to serve as a race of rickshaw boys and cooks. It is said that some of Shanghai's exclusive colonial clubs and restaurants hung out notices: DOGS AND CHINESE NOT ADMITTED. But times have changed in recent decades. The supremacy of Western man in both East and West is no longer a fact of life in the Middle or the Far East. Indeed, it now seems likely that whereas the last five centuries have belonged to Western man, the twenty-first century will see Oriental man in the ascendancy through the rise of China and Japan. Such a transition of power can be peaceful, if there is mutual understanding, and this is an area in which books have a unique role. The general shift of economic and military power from the Old World nations of Europe to the New World nations of the Pacific has taken place before the eyes of anyone over forty years of age and has shaken the former confidence of many Westerners in the future of their respective cultures.

China especially poses a problem to the Western democracies, which are surprised that a country with such a wealth of literature, art, and philosophy should turn to the communist solution. But the actual changes that have taken place in China are not so radical. The communist way of life is but one of the three great traditional modes of Chinese thought, namely Confucian conformity with benevolent regard for ancestral spirits, Taoist mysticism with absolute individual freedom of choice, and the realist school of law based on "the actual facts of the world as it now exists" (to quote Han Fei-tzu). This last mode is the ancient communist formula for social order in which the individual citizen surrenders his private interests to the welfare of the state. In this respect communism in China is not new. For example The Book of Lord Shang describes "a society in which people are mutually responsible for each other and … obliged to denounce each other's crimes." Chinese communism has adapted the teachings of Karl Marx and Russian applications to its remodeled society, but the original pattern is in the literature of dynasties long past. The old realist ideals are merely put into a modern frame, with of course the additions of a twentieth-century world. Foreign domination, economic chaos, and their own tradition of oppressive landlordism caused this turning to an ancient mode. The quality of realism is at the root of Chinese character. In any Pacific community from the remote island in the South Seas to the modern port town or city of Asia, one sees industrious Chinese working while others sleep, and disregarding the ordinary distractions of life.

Professor Giles sees clearly the relative achievements of the various dynasties. He describes the Sung dynasty as the golden age of Chinese literature, with the reservation that T'ang poetry surpasses even the best of Sung poetry. The Manchu dynasty, during which Giles lived, he denounces in his Gems of Chinese Literature (Shanghai, 1922) as "hardly past beyond the limits of essayism and artificial verse," which suggests that he was somewhat intolerant of his own times. His critical judgment, although often severe, is generally reliable to this day. His dynastic chronology, however, is quite out of date because of the advances in archaeology over the past seventy years. On the authority of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1970 ed.) and historical research, the following dates will better serve the reader of this book:

Shang, or Yin: c. 1776-c. 1123 B.C.

Chou: c. 1122-256 B.C.

Ch'in: 221-207 B.C.

Han: 202 B.C.—A.D. 221

Six Dynasties: 221-589

Sui: 589-618

T'ang: 618-906

Five Dynasties and Ten States: 907—960

Sung: 960-1279

Yüan: 1280-1368

Ming: 1368-1644

Ch'ing: 1644-1912

Biographical Note

Herbert Allen Giles was born at Oxford, England, in 1845. After a long life of ninety years he died at Cambridge in 1935. For fifty years he wrote books on Chinese subjects which he based on his sound knowledge of the Chinese language and a quarter century of personal experience living in China. As a young man Giles joined the British consular service in Peking in 1867 and thereafter served on various posts until 1892, when he returned to England.

Chinese studies had a very low priority in British universities in the late nineteenth century, but professorships were in existence, and of these Giles took up a chair of Chinese at Cambridge University in 1897. Students were few there, but Chinese books many. Also the leisurely life of a Cambridge professor gave Giles an unlimited opportunity to write. Books flowed from his pen. His command of the Chinese language coupled with great fluency in English yielded some of the clearest and most graceful translations of Chinese literature yet made. In 1922, the Royal Asiatic Society awarded Giles its triennial gold medal with the compliment that he had "beyond all other living scholars humanized Chinese studies."

Professor Giles truly did much to reveal to the English-speaking peoples of the world the depth and the beauty of Chinese culture. In an age that regarded the Chinese as exotic curiosities, by turns inscrutable or ridiculous, Giles brought about a better understanding of the greatness of China and the talents of the Chinese over the ages. A History of Chinese Literature is one of the most enduring literary achievements of his endeavors and is certainly a unique contribution to Chinese studies. The work of Professor Giles will no doubt be given renewed attention as the role of China in the modern world assumes an ever increasing prominence.